On the Splash Damage Twitch stream the other day, someone posed the question, “Dave, what made you quit level design and become a programmer instead?

This was tricky to answer - I didn’t remember quitting level design, nor did I do so to become a programmer. I’d being doing both long before either became my career.

The fact is though, I haven’t designed a map for years. Level design has made way for programming (or “software engineering” when I want to sound smart.) I can remember how to use Worldcr- ahem, “Hammer” - but anything else? Forget it.

It was probably just after Brink that I started to drift away from level design. That was probably my ‘peak’, but even during that I found it hard being creative. Like a reverse writer’s block, my mind was full of stuff that had gone before, rather than formulating stuff afresh. As work started on Dirty Bomb, my desire to code started to inflate, and I ended up doing more backend and analytics work to support my level design role. Soon, it was my actual job at the then newly-formed Fireteam.

While level design and programming are entirely different disciplines, they don’t feel all that different in the grand scheme of things. Obviously there are various shades of each, but my personal goal never changed: to produce something - be it a map or an app - that I would want to play or use. The path I take to reach that goal might be different now, but the urge and the desire to create something to be proud of is the same. If other people also want to play or use that product too, then even better!

I can’t not mention the impact Dust had on my slow career switch. When you’ve created something that becomes ridiculously renowned, everything gets judged against it. Expectations are raised. Standards are heightened. The fear of disappointing people is amplified many fold. It’s not a race, but if it were, I had chosen to quit while my horse was ahead.

It’s not a race though. There are hundreds of maps than are arguably better than Dust and Dust 2. Dust was in the right place at the right time, and Dust 2 launched itself off Dust’s back. (I have a new appreciation for why the movie industry has a thing for sequels.)

If Dust 2 were a meat, it’d be chicken - not because it’s universally loved, but rather because it’s universally not hated and almost universally available. Everyone knows what they’re getting. It’s the most agreeable and least offensive of all the fleshy foodstuffs. With Dust 2, everyone knows what to expect, and it remains the most-played CS map pretty much by default.

Change is afoot. CS:GO has made it easier than ever before for amateur level designers to distribute and promote their maps, and it’s surely only a matter of time before another map sneaks the crown off Dust 2’s head. The CS:GO “Operations” run by Valve are only going to make this happen sooner. I can’t wait to find out which map does it - maybe there’ll be several! Maybe it’ll be a map for an entirely different game.

I’m still proud having designed Dust, and Dust 2 (and Cobble!) and I’m ever grateful to those who helped me make them. I’m humbled when I remember people are still playing and enjoying them to the degree that they get refreshed with each new generation of the game. The stickiness of these maps both astounds and humours me, and I know they’ll probably be on my gravestone (do people still get gravestones these days?) When I started making maps, I could only dream of making a map as popular as Q2DM1 (or, as the kids call it these days, “Kutu-dee-em-what?“). Shows what I know. It still all seems quite ridiculous.

Three years ago my job title was “Level Designer”, today it’s “Software Engineer”. Both careers have their peaks and their troughs. But for all intents and purposes, I’m at the same company, working with the same brilliant people, and I still have features to build, bugs to fix, things to do, just a slightly different way of doing it. I still occasionally scribble half-doodles that could be construed as level designs if you squint a bit…

So… Cobble 2, anyone?